When I tell people I work in fiction publishing, the first thing they want to know is whether I spend my working day reading novels. I wish I could say yes. But the truth is that if you work for a small Independent start-up, like I do, you spend a lot of time doing important-but-boring things (proofreading ISBNS, maximising discoverability by optimising territory metadata encoded in ISBNs) and not much time doing important-but-fun things (reading great scripts, schmoozing agents to persuade them to send you great scripts). The result: your ISBNs are perfect. Your chances of finding the next bestseller are not. When you are squeezing your search into snatched evenings, weekends, and morning commutes, it makes it all the more exciting when one falls into your lap.
Only twice in my career have I experienced the tingle you get when you find a really special thriller. The first time was when I was working as an editorial assistant and my boss asked me to read and report on "some Swedish gubbins about a girl and a tattoo". The second time was just last year, when, as Editorial Director of new independent publisher Head of Zeus, I settled down to read a freshly submitted conspiracy thriller: The Abomination by Jonathan Holt. I started skimming the opening chapter a bit grumpily (Homeland was on) at 9 o'clock on Sunday night. I turned the last page, buzzing with excitement, at 4.30 on Monday morning.
I couldn't sleep after that. In the foggy mists of early morning insomnia, I started daydreaming about Larsson-level sales, about how this trilogy (for it was book one of three) would turn our little indie into a publishing house to be reckoned with, about how all my colleagues would all get end-of-year bonuses and new ipads, and how someone would say "if it wasn't for you, Laura", and I'd look so modest but in my head I would be punching the air. (Well, it was very early in the morning.)
The next day passed in a sleep-deprived blur: bullying busy colleagues to drop everything and read the manuscript; working out how much we could afford to offer, whether to try to get world rights, whether to risk an auction against other publishers (which might turn out cheaper) or pay extra to pre-empt - which essentially means making your highest bid first, which the agent must accept or reject straight away. Our acquisitions budget is tiny compared to the established houses. We independents are small players in a fast-changing game, and none of us can afford to make gambles that don't come off. So when I heard that our bid had been accepted, I was excited, yes, but also terrified: what if I had bet the company's future on a flop?
But, over the next few weeks, it began to seem as if we might be onto that rarest of things: a genuine winner. Everyone in the office who read the manuscript loved it. More importantly, people outside the company loved it too. At the Frankfurt Book Fair, The Abomination generated some real buzz, along with - hurray! - some real money in foreign rights sales.
Galvanized, we scheduled the book for publication on 1 May 2013, and started planning our line of attack. In small companies like ours, there isn't much money for big splashy campaigns, but we reckoned that so long as we got enough people reading, they would love it enough that they'd start talking, and sharing, and that would be half the job done. We printed 1,000 early proof copies to send to everyone we could think of. We budgeted for Amazon-sponsored promotions, and Facebook advertising. We somehow talked a digital marketing company who had read and loved the book into making us a cutting-edge website for half their usual fee. We congratulated ourselves on our May publication date - a month where there wasn't much else by way of competition in our genre. As the only new thriller out that month, we had a chance of sneaking into the hardback bestseller list, without having to drop a couple of million in advertising spend. From there, we thought, word of mouth would do the rest.
Then I logged on to the Huffington Post one January morning to find this:
"Inferno, Dan Brown's new book about Dante, is coming out on 14 May, 2013 from Doubleday in the U.S., and Transworld Publishers in the UK (a division of Random House)."
My first thought was - hurray! That's my May reading sorted. I know it's not very cool to like Dan Brown, but I do. His books are incredibly addictive, and full of puzzles and conspiracies, which I love. Not wholly unlike The Abomination, I thought. Oh. Wait a second. The Abomination. Our big white hope. The book that would make us millionaires, give us iPads For All. The book that was going to be May's top thriller, and which is now coming out in the same month as the most anticipated book of the decade, from one of the world's bestselling writers, published by arguably the best UK commercial fiction imprint.
As Bridget Jones would say - fuuuuuuuuuuuuck.
We had been gazumped. Of course, we could have cut our losses and moved to a different month. But that would have been very wimpy. So, bravely or foolishly (it remains to be seen) we decided to go head-to-head against Goliath. We reckoned that, like David with his slingshot, we small publishers have a few tiny, but deadly accurate, weapons at our disposal. A sense of humour is one - a big corporate house couldn't get away with sending early proof copies out throughout the industry, bearing a cheeky message to Brown's publishers. A network of kindred spirits is another: when an independent publisher tells an independent bookseller that they've found a book that is (whisper it) actually better written than Dan Brown, they take you seriously. Now some bookshops are promoting The Abomination and Inferno side by side, inviting readers to compare the two.
To me this is all terrifying. What if it backfires? What if Dan Brown just gobbles up all our sales? Will one of the most exciting books of my career just sink without trace, like so many good books do? All this is possible. But no one gets into publishing who does not secretly harbour a romantic belief in the power of a good story. I hope and believe that our plucky underdog of a novel has what it takes to give this adventure in publishing a last minute twist. Perhaps, just perhaps, with a bit of faith, and a good dollop of luck, my colleagues will be getting Ipads For All this Christmas.
PS. if you happen to be in Oxford on 7 May, drop into our book launch in the Broad Street Waterstones. Sure, Dan Brown has bespoke cocktails in NYC's Gotham Hall. But who doesn't love a glass of chilled champagne (OK, warm Prosecco) in a cosy bookshop...?